Have you ever thought that you could get a glimpse of the attitude and philosophy of a dojo with the way people handle putting away and putting on their gear? Granted, it’s not a major indicator, but it is an interesting way to observe how that dojo and the people in it functions.
I mention this because I’m thinking about my own club and some of the students’ lack of attention to such matters, and something that happened some years ago that brought this point into focus for me. First, the latter incident:
I had been invited to teach some very basic sword methods to a friend’s aikido class for youngsters. The class was fun, the kids got to play with pointy wooden objects, and I got to work with a totally different bunch of people. It was, all in all, a very enjoyable experience. Class ended, and as was my usual habit, I wandered off into a corner to take off my hakama and keikogi. Immediately, one of my friend’s senior black belts rushed up to offer to fold my hakama for me. I demurred several times, but the student kept insisting, and my friend finally had to intercede on his behalf. That was how he trained his students to pay respect to higher ranking teachers, he said. Plus, they learn how to fold up and stow (tatamu) a hakama properly.
I relented and let the student fold my hakama, not wishing to break his dojo’s traditions. It was their dojo and their customs. The student did a wonderful job folding the hakama and tying up the cords, giving it to me in a very nice rectangular, compact shape. I thanked him and he was very happy.
As soon as I got home, I shook the folded hakama open and refolded it my way. It wasn’t just because the “aikido way” of folding a hakama is different from the way I idiosyncratically folded my gear. In my own dojo, every individual is responsible for his stowing his own gear, higher ranking members and teachers included. It just felt wrong for me to leave the hakama like that, folded by someone else. Who knows, he might have slipped a poisonous snake inside its folds? Paranoid? Yep. You bet. That’s koryu thinking. We’re a bunch of deluded paranoid crazies.
There’s no wrong or right here, but really just different mentalities, and one which quite possibly illustrates a divide between modern (gendai) budo and koryu bujutsu (older martial systems). In that aikido class, the tradition of folding your teachers’ and sempai’s hakama reinforces a structural hierarchy and uniformity of methodology. It emphasizes the order of higher to lower ranking, consideration of the instructor, and mutual respect. Possibly the interaction builds personal connections between the lower ranking and the higher ranking members, while retaining the hierarchy, an important aspect in aikido, especially when you want to inculcate respect for elders and social etiquette in youngsters. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s a laudable custom.
In the koryu that I have trained in, however, nobody gets to handle somebody else’s dogi (training outfits) to put away or take out, or for that matter, no one touches another person’s training weapons without permission. This is, I will admit, probably stemming from a paranoid tradition among the bugeisha who used to train in the earliest koryu arts, and most likely comes from their hereditary warrior mentality. When donning a keikogi, you should learn to put it on yourself and take it off yourself, the better to be completely sure that you have cinched it on just right for your body so it doesn’t fall apart in the middle of practice. And when folding your outfit for storage after practice, you usually want to fold it yourself so you know exactly how it was folded, so that when you put it on again, you can very quickly don it without being caught, literally, with your pants down, trying to figure out how to don it.
That is why I recently mentioned to my students that they should really not spend a lot of time gabbing with each other when they are changing into their keikogi. Being half-dressed is really a poor position to counter an attack, so the faster you change, the better, then you can talk story all you want before practice starts. But don’t do it and extend the time you have with your pants down and you’re just in your boxer shorts.
That sense of real and mental preparedness also filters down to weapons. When they are stored away, each person is responsible for bagging his own dogu (tools). In iai, for me, it’s a practical matter. Before I store my iaito, I check the handle and blade, make sure the pin that holds the blade in the handle is secure in the socket, and then oil down my own sword. I don’t let anyone else do it because it’s my responsibility to make sure the weapon is in proper shape and not liable to breaking or falling apart the next time I train. Then I wrap my sageo around the handle of the sword in a particular knot (musubikata) that is characteristic of my ryu. It may be that someone may be able to figure out the knot, undo it, fool around with my sword, and then retie it, but the tie at least will give some pause to anyone attempting to disturb it or alter its condition.
I liken it to modern soldiering, where each soldier is responsible for keeping his personal gear and weaponry in top shape. You don’t let someone else break down and clean your rifle before you go out on patrol, least of all someone who might be lax in his attention to details. You do it yourself, you make sure the weapon is secure, properly oiled and properly sighted for your own personal preferences, because having a weapon that will not jam on you due to someone else’s laziness will literally be the difference between your life or death. And even if someone does do you a courtesy of prepping your gear, it’s really a good idea to double check the magazine and rounds, and make sure the machinery is working before going out on your patrol.
Now, adhering strictly to these dojo rules is not going to make a practitioner any “better” at “fightin’” and “grapplin’” and mixing it up, perhaps. It doesn’t make you a better MMA fighter or tougher dude. No way. But they do address the mentality of the koryu, and paying attention to such details are, I believe, an attempt to inculcate not just a physical, but also a mental preparedness, a way of thinking, so to speak.
In terms of “self-defense” or “martial” ability, there is only a limited degree that physical training can count for. The rest is mental attitude. One can study and intellectualize about this, and read any number of excellent books on the nature of real combat, physical confrontation and survival by authors who I have recommended and quoted in the past, but you still have to cultivate a mentality that isn’t superficial or skin deep. And part of it is developing that kind of attitude from the moment you step into the dojo: being observant, being careful, and being watchful. Being attentive to your surroundings, and being prepared with your equipment.
So, tatamikata, the way you fold things: Old Japanese residences (and even new apartment rooms) have very little closet space, comparatively speaking. And what little there is is taken up by linens and futon bedding that are stowed away during the day. In the “old days,” that meant that a lot of your clothes were folded and stowed, not hung up on clothes hangers. Kimono were, however, put on racks to air them out, sometimes over an incense burner to smoke away some nasty body odor, but as soon as they were deemed ready, they were folded. The verb, tatamu, denotes a kind of folding in an orderly manner (you can “tatamu” flat a cardboard box, for example, or “tatamu” a complex folded paper craft item; the verb is also, I think, a root for the word tatami, the reed mats, that are flat and rectangular. You can tatamu tatami by piling them up, one on top of the other), so the clothing wasn’t just smashed flat. They were folded to best take advantage of naturally occurring seams and places where folds were expected to appear, to lie as flat as possible in a neat package, so that they could be put away in a chest with room for more items on top or beside them. Although each dojo will claim they have the “right” way to fold a keikogi and hakama, actually I’ve experienced several different “right” ways. So the only advice I can give is that you do it the way your dojo’s sempai do it. We do it differently from aikido folk, who do it differently from Shinto Muso-ryu folk, and so on. I don’t think it’s a really big deal. As long as it is “properly” folded and stowed, it shows proper dojo etiquette. (I will admit a mea culpa, however, to just throwing my hakama into my gym bag at the end of class sometimes and then carefully folding it up when I get home, after I air it out overnight. I have to do this in order to get back home, over a mountain range, just a few minutes earlier to make dinner before it’s too late in the evening. Here, family responsibilities trump neatness.)
As for musubikata, how you tie things up: How you tie up your cords and clothes gets into kitsuke, the way to properly dress in a kimono, which is a subject by itself. But often, you will stow away equipment that has bags or accessories that require some kind of knot. Again, this goes back to premodern Japanese culture, when there weren’t much in the way of zippers or buttons. Everything was cinched and knotted. Even in the West, knowing how to tie things up was one of those skills that came with daily life, whether on a boat or in the woods, like how to start a fire without modern fire-starting chemicals and charcoal brickettes. We’ve just forgotten a lot of it unless we were in the Boy Scouts or have sailing experience. It’s really not all that esoteric and exotic, except that for me, tying anything other than a bow and a square knot drives me crazy. I’m still having fits learning all the intricate and symbolic knotting that goes into tea ceremony.
With budo, there are fewer instances of tying things up, but you do need to tie up your cloth belt, your hakama cords, and so on. With weaponry, there are bags that need proper knotting, and that pesky sageo cord on the scabbard of an iai sword can just drive you crazy. Again, the different schools of iai will have you cinch up your hakama and sageo in different ways for practice. But stowing away the gear may also require some tying techniques.
When I first started iai in Japan, students in the Seitei Iai (Standardized, Modern iai) classes took off their sageo because it was too troublesome to deal with. Then one year when I returned, I was asked, “Hey, where’s your sageo????” So all of a sudden, we had to use the sageo, like the older koryu. So it goes.
Because the sageo was, in a way, reintroduced to Seitei Iai, dealing with it when the iaito was stowed away had to be reevaluated. Some of my sempai simply wrapped it around the hilt and stowed the sword in their carrying bags. Then more students tied it down to the length of the saya (scabbard). What I do with my own sword is tie it up in a particular pattern of knots that secures the sword into the scabbard. It looks complex, so someone who does not know how it was tied would have a hard time undoing it and then rewrapping it, but it is easy to tie up quickly, and it can be undone and the sword ready for use very, very quickly. It is an affectation of mine that I do not require of my students. I only tell them to stow their sword and sageo neatly, show them some basic methods. If they want to do it my way, I tell them, as my teacher did, that they have to just watch me do it and learn how to “steal” my techniques: learn by observation and trial and error.
The thing of it is, if all this was good for was to prepare you for fighting or combat, then the koryu would have disappeared long ago when the weaponry involved became supplanted by guns and more sports-oriented, exciting modern martial arts. But I think that attention to detail, to mindfulness, is in itself part of the active meditative shugyo (spiritual discipline) that makes the koryu so attractive to many people. As a practical consideration, nobody goes around with a long sword stuck in their belts for self-defense, after all. Or even a six-foot staff while going shopping for groceries. But as an art and a shugyo, the koryu still manage to convey relevant information about one’s state of mind, one’s attitudes, and one’s abilities in physical health, spatial awareness, and mental preparedness. These generalized traits are of immense service not just for combative purposes, but in everyday life. Paying attention to how you fold your hakama and tie and stow your weapons are part of that shugyo, not just an afterthought.